Women ripped off their black burqas and defiantly smoked cigarettes, while the men cut their beards as they gave the peace sign.
After two years living under the Islamic State, the last-remaining residents of the northern Syrian city of Manbij could not quite believe it when the US-backed forces arrived to rescue them.
“Why did you take so long?” sobbed one woman, who had been trapped in her basement for a week along with her two daughters and elderly father after Isil threatened to kill anyone who tried to escape.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) declared the city fully liberated on Friday, saying they were “starting a new history after closing the book of darkness”.
The battle, which has displaced nearly 100,000 civilians and left more than 400 dead, proved to be the fiercest of all the offensives to dismantle the group's self-proclaimed caliphate across Syria and Iraq.
The operation to liberate the city, which was launched in late May, was significantly slowed by the jihadists’ use of civilians as human shields, forcing troops to clear the city house by house.
Manbij was of great strategic and symbolic importance to the Islamists and they held out to the last. Some 25 miles from the Turkish border, it had been a hub for the smuggling of weapons and foreign recruits from Europe. Manbij had such a large number of British fighters, it earned the nickname locally as Little London.
The battle had not just pitted Syrian against Syrian, but Briton against Briton.
Among those on the frontline with the SDF was Macer Gifford, a 29-year-old former currency trader from Oxfordshire.
“I wanted to join the fight against Isil in Manbij, in particular, because of the connection it has with Britain,” said Gifford, a public school-educated former Conservative councilor who had no previous military experience apart from a few days’ training with the Territorial Army.
“I wanted to confront those people who were brought up in the West and given every chance to succeed, but who instead chose to come to Syria to brutalise and terrorise the innocent people here,” he told The Sunday Telegraph.
Gifford, who uses a pseudonym to protect his family, joined a unit of 40 soldiers which included a number of other Westerners.
“It was like nothing I’ve experienced before,” said Gifford, who has fought with the Kurdish army in other battles in northern Syria. “There was constant gunfire and shelling, and I mean 24/7, night and day. You couldn’t travel more than 10 yards without a sniper trying to take a shot at you.
“Unlike their other strongholds, in Manbij they did not run away,” he said. “They’ve had years to prepare for this fight and they’ve stockpiled massive amounts of weapons and rounds.”
Pictures from newly-liberated Manbij show a bleak landscape of flattened buildings and bombed-out roads with black Isil flags still fluttering at the top of poles.
“It was hell on earth,” said Gifford. “It was unbearably hot, at around 50 degrees, sometimes we didn’t get to sleep or eat for 24 hours, and there’s the constant smell of rotting bodies out on the street.”
He said Isil fighters were wearing civilian clothes, making it hard to distinguish them from non-combatants.
"We saw one man going into a house, where we were sure he was laying IEDs, but we weren’t 100 per cent. Unlike Isis, the SDF has rules of conduct, so I didn’t shoot,” he said. “Particularly as a foreigner in someone else’s war, you don’t want to be responsible for accidentally killing a civilian.”
He saw the use of young children as spotters as well as female snipers. Isil deploying women in battle is almost unheard of and suggests they are struggling for manpower. According to local reports, as many as 4,000 fighters were killed.
“They don’t care who they shoot, whether it’s children, women, the elderly,” Gifford said. “There was one suicide bomber who blew himself up in the middle of a crowd of young families just to stop them leaving the city.”
Gifford, who has now completed three tours with the Kurds, decides whether to tell his family he is heading out to Syria by weighing up his chance of death or serious injury. This time around he told them.
“In previous offensives, I worked out that the statistic was roughly one in 10 foreign fighters being killed or badly hurt,” he said. “This one is so fierce, it is more like five or six in 10.”
In the two-month battle for Manbij, he said that five Westerners had been killed and 10 wounded. After the death last week of 22-year-old Dean Carl Evans from Reading, who was shot by a sniper, Gifford believes he is now the last Briton fighting Isil.
But he came very close to death himself on his final day in the city on Thursday, when he was caught in open view of Isil. He managed to lob an explosive at them and slip away.
Gifford said that almost all the fighters they encountered were foreigners, who had been ruling over the city’s residents with a perverted interpretation of sharia law.
Abu Khadija, who was living in Manbij until his neighbourhood was liberated three weeks ago, said he thought dozens of British fighters had remained in the city to fight.
"Many of the foreigners were the ones made to stay behind, Isis uses them for their suicide missions," he told The Sunday Telegraph. "Lots more were brought in from Raqqa and Deir Ezzor as well as this is very important territory for them."
However, it is difficult to know the nationality of those killed, Gifford said, as fighters had burned their passports.
“Much of the paperwork in their headquarters was in French - how women should dress, how fighters should treat their sex slaves,” he said. “It was clear these Westerners had all left their comfortable lives and taken up residence in these opulent buildings, oppressing the people who lived there,” he said.
Reports that made it out during Isil’s two-year hold on the city revealed that there were regular beheadings in the public square and people were being jailed for crimes as minor as smoking, listening to music or not wearing the burqa.
“I know there is an irony in me saying this as a foreigner, but I couldn’t sit at home and watch Britons and others do this,” he said.
After spending seven months on the battlefield, he earned his annual leave last week. To get out of the country, however, he had to sneak across the Syrian border into Iraq, risking arrest if caught by Kurdish authorities which disapprove of foreigners joining the war. He is now in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, and is hoping he will be free to return to the UK.
Western nations have warned their citizens against travel to Syria and Iraq and joining the fight against Isil, saying they may face criminal charges on returning home. Despite the warnings, hundreds from North America and Europe have made their way to join Kurdish forces. When they see tyranny, torture and murder of innocents, many people of courage and conviction can't stand by and watch without acting. I am not so sure they should be discouraged. I can only feel respect and admiration for them.
Thanx to the Telegraph